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The Tree of Knowledge Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela
The Biological Roots of Human Understanding
Published by Shambhala Publications
Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2002


An incredible book of ten chapters arranged in a recursive fashion with a diagram that shows the interconnections of the chapters and chapter concepts with each other. The diagram heads each chapter with the current subjects in dark red. A suggestion to new readers: If you're not sure you want to read the book start with Chapter 10, go back to 1, read to 9 and then 10.

Their first metaphor uses Christ Crowned With Thorns by Hieronymus Bosch to illustrate the great temptations of certainty. The man in the lower right seems to be telling Jesus, "Now listen to me, I know what I'm saying.!" This book deals with how we reach such certainty and how ephemeral such certainty turns out to be. Their next metaphor is the blind spot of the optic nerve: "We do not see that we do not see." (Sounds like one of R. D. Laing's Knots.) The authors point out that ". . . a statement is a scientific one only when it is based on scientific explanations." (As G. B. Madison points out in Understanding, "This is also true if you replace science with religion and magic. Maturana and Varela, being scientists, naturally miss this generalization of their statement.)

The organization-of-life explanations are extremely well-written and valuable in their development of life as a mechanism that exists by maintaining an invariant (or constant) relationship with its environment (which must include other living beings). When this process generalizes up to human life in Chapter 10, we discern that process is what we call love. In the example of the wild girl (or feral children in general), the lack of interaction with other humans (love) causes a maladjustment which can never be fully recovered from. Life and love are inseparable unities. You cannot have one without the other. In the authors' words, "We have only the world that we bring forth with others, and only love helps us bring it forth."

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